Central Valley woman works to preserve Native language

VISALIA, California -- “My name is Marie Wilcox.”

It’s a story that started back in 1933 when Marie Wilcox was born. She had a modest upbringing, spending much of her childhood living with her grandparents in the Foothills of Tulare County.

“I think it was better then, even though people didn't have much food or much money. I didn't want for anything.” smiles Wilcox, recalling memories of her childhood.

Growing up Wilcox spoke the Wukchumni language with her grandparents, becoming fluent. But after they passed, for the most part she stopped using it, with most around her only speaking English.

Then one day Wilcox found herself the only person still left who was fluent in the language of her ancestors.

“I thought, there's no one to talk to anymore.” Wilcox said.

Over 100 native languages now teeter on the edge of extinction in the United States, and here in Central California things are no different. Many tribal languages have already been lost to the memories of those long gone.

But for Wilcox and her family this simply will not be the fate of Wukchumni. “I've created a dictionary of most of the Wukchumni that I can remember.”

Wilcox’s efforts in preserving the Wukchumni language was given worldwide attention in the 2014 documentary “Marie’s Dictionary”.

This short documentary chronicles a day in the life of the family as they finish Wilcox’s dictionary, both on paper, and a recorded audio version.

Now, just three years later, these same words are being echoed not only by Wilcox but all around her.

“My great granddaughter here, she has learned a lot of our language, she can read stories in our language.” smiles Wilcox motioning towards Destiny Treglown.

Treglown seems enthusiastic about her role in preserving the language, “I mean every little kid likes to learn from a storybook, we've all read little stories, little Dr. Suess, whatever! So I like to translate them.”

One of these stories Treglown has helped to translate is the Wukchumni story of Owl Rock, told to Wilcox by her grandmother. Now Wilcox’s great granddaughter and daughter, Jennifer Malone, are reading these words in their weekly Wukchumni classes in Visalia, along with games and events like the annual Native Fest.

“I have my mother, which is our fluent speaker, who comes in to make sure we say our words right.” explains Jennifer Malone explaining how the classes operate.

“It's just been getting better every year.” smiles Wilcox.

Treglown and Malone both picked up Wukchumni later in life, but the family’s hope really lies in the hands of young people like Jeremie Faico, learning as early as possible.

And for Wilcox personally, a chance to have a direct hand teaching another new generation, with a great-great grand baby as Treglown in expecting.

“Young people really didn't know about culture a long time ago, but they're learning now. And it does me good you know to see to see them learning, and knowing as much as they have learned.” smiles Wilcox.

“My mother, she felt that she was the end of the trail,” begins Malone, “and that meaning to her that she was the last person to have all of our culture our traditions and everything, but I feel good that I'm able to tell her now that she's not the end of the trail, it'll keep going on.”

If you would like to learn Wukchumni, or just attend a class, contact the Owens Valley Career Development Center in Visalia at 559-738-8248. The classes are free and meet every week.


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